Forgiveness frees us to incarnate love
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Advent 4, December 22nd 2019
When Jesus’ mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said ‘Don’t do that’.
Do what? Dismiss Mary. Why was Joseph going to dismiss Mary? Because even though he wanted to spare her public disgrace, he was a righteous man, and Mary being pregnant, not by him, was a breach of his righteousness, a scandal. It was, according to the rules of their society, a sin, and so Joseph was going to distance himself from the sinner. Here, right at the start of his life, even while Jesus is still in the womb, is rivalry and its peace-delivering resolution, scapegoating. Rivalry, through which we establish our identity by defining ourselves against others, involves separating ourselves apart from others who are deemed not like us. Joseph was about to affirm his place in society as belonging to the group which behave respectably. The angel says ‘don’t do that’. Don’t make Mary into a scapegoat in order to preserve your identity. Don’t make yourself acceptable to others, by making her not. And ironically, through this very pregnancy, which you are considering using as a means to uphold your honour, God is going to undo all mechanisms for doing that. God is going to save people from their sins.
Prior to the story of Jesus’ birth, the gospel writer presents Jesus’ genealogy, tracing his ancestry all the way back to Abraham. It’s Matthew’s way of saying this is the fulfilment of Judaism. He also inserts a number of women into the long list of men, four of whom engaged in non-respectable sexual activity. This is to prepare the reader for Mary’s situation, but also to warm us up to the fact that God’s action transcends what is socially acceptable. That’s reinforced by the fact that the baby to be born shall be called Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’, and not ‘God is with us only if we don’t get pregnant outside of marriage’, or ‘God is with us, only if we are Jewish, or Christian or Muslim, or Australian’, or if only anything else.
Joseph proves himself a good bloke in following the angel’s directive to name the baby Jesus, meaning ‘God saves’, or in the case of this particular Jesus, Matthew tells us, God ‘saves us from sin’. And there we have the heart of Christianity: we are saved from sin. What does that mean? Why is it good news?
Let’s think of this in terms of what we are doing when we confess our sins in our worship. We might think of it in terms of asking God for forgiveness for all the ways we have stuffed up, for bad things we have done. It might be to cleanse ourselves from guilt, to be right with God and other people. It’s something we have to do regularly, because we always fall short. Even when we receive forgiveness, we continue to sense that we’ll eventually fail again and so carry a sort of spiritual report-card, or slate, with our record on it, awaiting God, our judge, to set us free from our ‘crimes’. The trouble with all this is that means we are in rivalry with God, against God, or God is against us, in competition with us, not on our side, but wanting us to be different, something else, better, more this or that.
Seeing God as in rivalry with us means we have failed to receive the profound insight that the prophet Isaiah made 700 years before Jesus, which was monotheism: that there is one God. It was a huge advance on how God was understood in his time, – which was as the best among all the gods. If that was so, then his god would have been in competition with other gods, and so for example, need defending, as in the case of Elijah, fighting against the representatives of other gods for his god’s honour. This is not just a fight over beliefs, for it directly translates to how we treat each other. Isaiah discovered there was only one God, who was God for all people and was with all people –Emmanuel. That’s why in the passage from Isaiah set for today (7:10-16), Isaiah, on behalf of God, urges the king not to engage in the conflict he is being pulled into with his neighbouring kings against the Assyrian Empire. Rather than fighting, he must act on the basis of humankind as one, created by the one God, who cares unconditionally for all, and therefore is not in rivalry with us.
That God is outside of rivalry is reinforced by the inclusion of non-Jewish women in Jesus’ genealogy, and the angel’s directive to Joseph to not engage in rivalry over Mary’s pregnancy. There is one God, who is with us. Not who is with us as long as we’re good and don’t sin etc. If we think God is only with us, or favours us, if we are good, or if we ask for forgiveness for our failings, then we are trying to satisfy God and treating God as in being in opposition to us. That’s called idolatry.
If, on the other hand, God is not opposed to us, then what is sin? Sin is rivalry. It is what Jesus takes upon himself on the cross, for what else put him there than people in competition with him? Jesus’ prayer asking God to forgive those who killed him, ‘Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing’, reflects the fact that humanity is so engrossed in and driven by rivalry, that we can’t even see what we’re really doing. Those who killed Jesus thought they were doing something good, which needed to be done, like we do when we think we have to get ahead of others, prove ourselves right, put others down, to shore up our own position, or punish our enemies. Jesus dies and comes back to forgive us. That’s God showing us our rivalry, but at the same time forgiving us for it, saying it doesn’t change God’s care for us. It remains unconditional. So forgiveness is God’s gift to set us free. That means when we confess our sins, we are not asking for God’s forgiveness, we are responding to it. We only even become aware of what sin really is because we are forgiven for it, so forgiveness of sin proceeds our awareness of it. It’s like we are forgiven and so can look back and say ‘oh, that’s what we’re set free from’. Our confession of sin is the expression of our heart, which upon realising what we have been caught up in, is broken and contrite. (Psalm 51:17) We see our truth.
We are set free from rivalry, but the big question is whether we will take up that freedom and use it to transcend the barriers of social acceptability and power struggles. Will we allow it to enable us to forgive our enemies and create better lives for ourselves and one another?
At the school my daughter attended, they held causal days, when students gave a donation to charity and didn’t have to wear their school uniform. About half the kids choose to wear their sports uniform. Why? Because students judge one another by what they wear. They know (at least unconsciously) that through fashion, they compete with one another. Adults do this too. Imagine the power of being free from that? Imagine being able to wear what you want. Imagine being able to say and do what you want, with no fear or concern at all about what others would think of you! Absolutely no need for approval. We have all tasted that. That is what we see in Jesus, who, being without sin, i.e. without rivalry, is free to love, because his desires are not shaped by rivalry, but (divine) love. To repent of our sins is to be set free from rivalry, it is to choose to be free of any need for approval from others and be free of the need to win, to make ourselves acceptable. It is the Creator bringing creation to fulfilment by unleashing within us the ability to play our true role in the world, which is to incarnate divine love.